While my career is communications, one of my other favourite obsessions is being hunched down in a battered, stained and lumpy chair, in the dark, pretending I’m someone else. . . In case you hadn’t already guessed, I’m talking about movies.
I generally see a movie a week at the theatre and have done for many years, so I’ve seen a lot of movies. And it suddenly occurred to me that movies are a pretty darn good metaphor for the evolution of my communicator career. I guess that’s part of why we all love movies – they reflect and emulate life in ways that can illustrate, teach and inspire us once we finish our popcorn and head back out into the bright light of the day-to-day.
As I thought about how movies have been reflective of my career’s development in communications, certain movies floated to the surface as key milestones. Here’s how it plays out:
“Working Girl” (1988)
This movie is sort of how my communications career began. In case you’ve forgotten or never saw the movie, Melanie Griffith plays a secretary trying to make more of herself in the big city. Her oh-so-bad boss, played by Sigourney Weaver steals an idea Melanie has, but Melanie goes “outside the box” to outmaneuver the boss and get, not only the success she’s after, but also, the guy.
Well in my first “real” job in my big city, I wasn’t a secretary, but I was in a big company, and I did have a less-than-stellar boss. She wasn’t quite as evil as Sigourney, but she definitely wasn’t a supportive, mentoring sort of manager. Still, because I was young, new and energetic, I was determined to do a good job, and build great colleague relationships, and do great work. And in doing so, I drew the notice and interest of another woman executive in the company. THAT woman not only encouraged me, she actually created a new job for me.
That job was a communications role that this executive told me she felt I had the “perfect combination of skills and personality to be successful at” – how great is that?! As a young professional, this was the best possible thing to inspire me to keep trying to do great work. Before then, I didn’t even know there was such a job as “employee communications,” but afterwards I was all over this role – it felt like I’d come home and I was instantly hooked.
So, at the beginning of my career, I was Melanie Griffith . . . well, okay, not nearly as thin or pretty, and I didn’t get Harrison Ford [Darn!], but on the up-side I had MUCH better hair than Melanie did! And, more importantly, I’d found my calling – Hooray!
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
Over the next few years, I had several other communications roles, and as I learned more about what this kind of odd job of communications involved [let's face it - most of us communicators STILL struggle to explain our jobs when we go to a party as someone asks "So, what do you do?"] and what skills I needed to develop to get better at it, my life was a bit like that moment in the Wizard of Oz, after the tornado is over and Dorothy realizes all is quiet, so she get up and goes outside.
Remember that magical moment, when the movie goes from black-and-white inside the house, to astonishing Technicolor as Dorothy steps out into Oz?
That’s kind of how I felt after the amazing example of that female mentor showed me how real leaders [as opposed to people who are simply managers] behave and what kind of genuine impacts honest, two-way collaborative communication can have on an organization.
Also at this point in my career, I had discovered IABC [International Association of Business Communicators] and started making connections with other communications professionals in other places through a social networking site specifically for communicators [sadly, that site is now defunct, but it was great while it lasted]. This was a huge revelation and provided me with not only a network of people who did what I did and could understand and offer advice and support with the challenges, but I also started to be exposed to more and different ways to approach communicating that I would certainly not have discovered on my own.
Expanding your horizon is a good thing. I wouldn’t have minded my own personal little entourage like Dorothy had, or a trip to Emerald city, but, failing that, my network and my involvement with IABC has been an amazing thing for my career. I’m so grateful to have met and developed professional – and in some cases, personal – friendships with a number of very talented and generous communicators through the years [You all know who you are! Thank you!!].
If you’ve seen Network, then you can probably guess which scene I want to reference. In case you haven’t seen it, the movie is about a TV network that becomes pretty unpleasant and mercenary, and there’s an older news anchor who gets fired - played absolutely masterfully, by Peter Finch – who decides he’s had enough. The famous, and brilliant ”mad as hell” scene isn’t exactly how I was feeling, but I did decide I needed a change at this point in my career.
The truth is, if you do anything long enough, you’re bound to hit a rough patch.
I’d been at a job I absolutely LOVED for almost four years. I loved the company, the people I worked with, the work I was doing, and I absolutely ADORED my boss, who was a self-made senior executive who worked her way up within the company and was not only one of the most influential leaders in the organization, but another exceptional mentor who showed me simply by being herself and doing what she did everyday how a professional can be both effective and collaborative. I learned more about relationship-building from her than from anyone else in my career to that point, which at that time included three other communication roles at three different companies, two of which had re-organizations that eliminated my job. But I was incredibly happy where I was, and you’d have had to dynamite me out of my job at that point in time. There was literally nothing about my job I didn’t like.
And then, the company was purchased, and the new owners made it very clear that they intended to substantially reduce the operations in Canada and manage most of our business from the U.S. head office. Anyone who’s been through a similar experience knows that it is a difficult and painful situation, both for the numerous employees who will lose their jobs, and also for the communicator, who frequently is the one required to deliver the news of the changes to the rest of the organization. This was my role in this situation.
After a year of doing very difficult communications work in a highly emotional environment to help the company implement the changes and facilitate the reorganization of the business, I decided to take a new role at a different company where I had opportunities to learn new skills, and move forward with building my career looking towards the future.
“Gone with the Wind” (1939)
I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen THIS movie, is there?!?! And even if you haven’t seen it, surely you’ve heard of if and know what it’s about, right?
Well, this movie kind of represents where I feel I am now, coming up on the 15-year mark of my career as a communicator. Well, at least the main character – Scarlett O’Hara represents me, anyway.
Gone with the Wind is a sweeping epic that takes both the characters and the audience through virtually every emotion and experience – high, low and everything in between – that anyone could possibly live through. And a goodly proportion of those highs and lows happen to Scarlett personally!
Now, to be fair, Scarlett starts out as pretty spoiled and selfish, but that is partly due to who she is and what world she lives in. It also makes for great cinema and some terrific lines. [Side note: If you haven't seen the movie, or haven't seen it lately, it's well worth a re-viewing!]
As the Civil War happens, it causes some pretty tough things to happen to Scarlett, and she has to learn to deal with them. And it’s that situation and quality that makes me feel an affinity with both Scarlett and this movie as I reach the “experienced” phase of my career.
I have been a communicator in eight organizations, and worked under 14 different bosses. My work has spanned different industries, different company structures – large and small, and wildly different work environments. It has been a hell of a ride and I’ve loved nearly every minute of it.
What all that variety has taught me is the same thing I saw Scarlett learning throughout the course of Gone with the Wind. And that is basically: “Stuff happens. Figure it out and get the job done.” That looks and sounds so simple and obvious when I look at it there in my post, but as all the other communicators out there will know, earning that knowledge takes you through quite a rollercoaster of experiences before you TRULY know what it means, and how to do it consistently and thoroughly in every situation.
Both Scarlett and I understand [if you'll forgive me speaking for Scarlett momentarily] that you can’t always structure your life or what happens in it the way you might ideally like it to be. So the best thing to do instead is to roll with the bounces, stay focused on the goal [for Scarlett, it was to "never go hungry again!" and for me it's to deliver the best communication support I possibly can to my organization] and keep in mind that there is always a way to turn a challenge into an opportunity. I know that sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish, but 15 years in the trenches has taught me it’s true.
While I rarely get to control everything that happens at work, I absolutely CAN control how I choose to react to what happens, and, more importantly, what I choose to DO with what happens. Looking for ways to “figure it out” instead of reasons to complain about why it’s not what I want has always worked well for me. That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t grumble a little bit about some of the not so great stuff with my communicator friends, but even that can be a “figure it out” moment, because after they commiserate with me, they usually offer me advice on how to manage it based on their own experiences – YAY!
And, if I can leave you with one last nugget of wisdom Scarlett taught me, and that stands me in good stead as a communications professional it would be: “Tomorrow is another day.”